Monday, May 31, 2010

Further comment re Leviticus 18

Following up a comment below, that Leviticus 18:19 might be the key to interpreting the whole chapter, I offer these thoughts (but recognise, as usual here) that many other thoughts could be shared!

My sense (reflecting on previous internet discussions going back a few years now) is that Leviticus 18:19 is highlighted because a presumption is made that this is one proscription in a chapter of proscriptions which is uniformly not obeyed (or, at least, widely disobeyed) by that community of Christians who otherwise argue that Leviticus 18:22 (and, of course, a number of less or non-controversial commandments in the chapter*) should be obeyed.

Some questions arise:

(1) Suppose all the disobeyers of Leviticus 18:19 got their act together, repented and obeyed this proscription. Would that mean that all the disobeyers of Leviticus 18:22 would also repent? (My hunch, of course, being that a different line of hermeneutical consideration of 18:22 would then be pursued!)

(2) Whether or not the connections via the Greek version of Leviticus 18:22 and New Testament passages holds good (as referred to by me in a post below), I think it unarguable that, to the extent that the NT says something about same sex sexual relationships, the NT takes a 'dim view' of such relationships, in line with Leviticus 18:22 (and, yes, mostly with male-male same sex sexual relationships in mind). This of course is unexceptional as an observation inasmuch as virtually all the NT says about ethics of human social behaviour is in line with OT commandments. Does the NT 'reinforce' or 'underline' the ongoing application of Leviticus 18:22 for the Christian community? If so, is this reinforcing or underlining of Leviticus 18:22 a dimension we need to consider as a binding of the commandment for the Christian community in a way in which Leviticus 18:19 is not (because not further attended to in the NT)?

(3) Suppose we agreed that Leviticus 18:19 (i) no longer applies to Christian readers of Scripture (ii) the lack of continuing application raises the possibility that other proscriptions in Leviticus 18 no longer apply? [Logically this must be the case!] Does it thereby follow that any of the other proscriptions are thereby remitted? I suggest the answer is "No." We would not suddenly be freed to sacrifice children to Molech or to sleep with our neighbour's wife. We would, of course, be in a situation where the mere statement of a proscription in Leviticus 18 was not sufficient in itself to yield the definitive, everlasting conclusion, "Do not do X applies to Christians." Other considerations would need to be brought to bear on the discussion. In the particular case of 18:22, that, I suggest would include consideration of (2) above.

In short: I think there is an important hermeneutical discussion to be had about 18:22 in the respect of the whole of Leviticus 18: the questions posed here are questions, but, at least on an initial response to the comment made about 18:19, I am not convinced that 18:19 is the 'pivot' on which the discussion turns.

*None of us know any sane person who argues for bestiality or child sacrifice to Molech!!

Friday, May 28, 2010

Eat what you like, so long as its vegetables or fruit

It's true; and I found it on a hermeneutics blog this site links to!

Leviticus 18

A lot could be said about this chapter! Robert Gagnon has probably said it already. Here I offer three observations:

(1) The whole chapter is important, not simply one or two verses. It is worth asking, what is the whole chapter about, and how do the individual proscriptions within it relate to the chapter as a whole?

(2) In respect of the topic of 'the Bible and homosexuality', 18:22 is very important. It is the key Old Testament text underlying the New Testament texts which are normally discussed within that topic (i.e. Romans 1:18-32; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10; 1 Timothy 1:10). One reason for saying this is that in the Greek Old Testament, Leviticus 18:22, reads, "καὶ μετὰ ἄρσενος οὐ κοιμηθήσῃ κοίτην γυναικός· βδέλυγμα γάρ ἐστιν" so that the words for 'man' (arsenos) and for 'bed' (koiten) appear to be conjoined together in 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10 which both use arsenokoitai. (1 Corinthians 6:9 may in fact be the earliest use of this compound word, raising the question of whether it is directly conjoined from the Greek Old Testament).

(3) Leviticus is, quite obviously, part of the Law of Moses. Jesus had quite a bit to say about the Law of Moses. Any observations about Jesus' silence regarding homosexuality should engage with what Jesus had to say about the Law of Moses. On that topic, Jesus was not silent!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Genesis 19 - maybe part 1 of more, maybe not

There is quite a lot of dodgy sex stuff in Genesis 19-20, all against the background of the difficult story of Isaac's conception and birth, sidetracked as it got with Hagar's concubinage and the fathering of Ishmael.

In Genesis 19 a rapacious sexuality* asserts itself (19:1-29), then incest creeps in (almost literally on a drunken Lot, 19:30-38). Sarah herself, despite advancing years, is attractive to Abimelech, king of Gerar, who acts on the attraction, takes her, then hands her back on discovery through a dream that she is not Abraham's sister but his wife (20:1-18).

What is going on here? A setting out of ethics via narrative? At the least the narratives illustrate some of the proscribed behaviours in Leviticus 18 - as does the story of Abraham nearly but not sacrificing his child Isaac (Genesis 22; cf. Leviticus 18:21). A settling of ancient scores? This is particularly noticeable in the stories of Abraham, Hagar and Ishmael and Lot, his daughters and their (grand)sons, Moab and Ben-ammi. The emergent nations from these children are of dubious parentage, forever slurred within the history Israel tells itself.

The material we are working with in Genesis 19:1-29 is enigmatic, ambiguous, and contributory to inter-textual echoes throughout the Bible. Some kind of spiritual warfare is going on: angels manifesting as humans become the occasion for rapacious, violent, inhospitable behaviour. The men of Sodom wish to dominate and desecrate them - a vicious manifestation of prior wickedness within the city. But these are not ordinary humans they try to intimidate. As angels they have extraordinary power. They rescue Lot from the vindictive bullying of the assailants, blind the bullies, and destroy the city. Fiery, sulphuric desolation is the fate of Sodom, and of nearby Gomorrah.

The story is 'classic' spiritual warfare: good versus evil; evil appears to have victory in its grasp; but good triumphs and evil is vanquished.

The reactive destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is of a piece with the story of Noah: wickedness increases on the earth, but it will be checked, and then defeated. If my beginning observation was about dodgy sexuality being narrated through Genesis 19 and 20, a closing observation could be that dodgy humanity is being narrated through these chapters. People can be incredibly righteous (Abraham, many references in Genesis), very caring (Abraham as intercessor for Sodom in Genesis 18:22-33), full of integrity (Abimelech in Genesis 20), and quite stupid (Lot's wife and Lot's sons-in-law, Genesis 19:14,26). But people can also behave badly, so very badly that destruction is the consequence (Genesis 19:1-29).

Why Israel would tell such stories is not hard to fathom. Israel's calling is to be righteous, caring, and to act with integrity. This elect nation should be very clear that wickedness is intolerable to God. But it can be encouraged to trust God who is merciful - to people such as Lot who is not very wise, but has not completely given way to wickedness, to Abimelech who makes an innocent mistake, to Hagar and Ishmael who have been entangled in a complicated moral situation not of their own making - and patient but slow spiritual learners such as Abraham and Sarah. In certain moments Israel is a Lot, an Abimelech, a Hagar and an Ishmael. But mostly Israel is Abraham and Sarah. Called by God. Promised through a covenant to receive a great future. But impatient, unseeing, lacking faith, fearful, while also understanding something of the mercy and love which God asks of them.

With respect to modern concern about homosexuality, Genesis 19 tells us very little. We can only understand ethical imperatives which the narrative touches on (to do with homosexuality, incest) through other texts (such as Leviticus 18). The narrative itself is more interested in other lessons such as avoiding complete moral degradation, and seeking righteous and wise ways of living.

Yet the narrative challenges us in one way in respect of our times. When so much of our discussion is on what we think Scripture means, whether the church might bless or approve such and such a relationship, or not, these chapters in Genesis confront us with the God who sees exactly what we do, who acts mercifully and punitively, though never capriciously. [ADDED NOTE: the view taken here is that Sodom was punished because of its general wickedness, to which the reader begins to be alerted in 18:16-33].

If we seek from Genesis 19 an answer to an ethical question we find no answer which can be isolated from other relevant texts, but we meet the One to whom we all answer for the way we live.

*My initial post had 'homosexuality' here instead of 'sexuality'. I have been thinking further because I acknowledge that 'homosexuality' is a much debated word in this kind of context. Some, for example, advancing the thought that this nineteenth century coined word should only be used to refer to 'modern homosexuality', and perhaps specifically to 'same sex attraction' as opposed to 'same sex sexual activity' which might not involve 'same sex attraction' as understood via modern psychologists. Thus, on this line of understanding, men seeking to dominate other men via sex are not necessarily homosexual, neither are Hellenistic older males and their younger boy friends, all destined later to take up a happy married life. The weakness with this distinction between modern and ancient worlds is that if homosexuality is a phenomenon occurring in nature, including within human experience, then it is not a suddenly appearing feature, but a recurring feature. Ipso facto, it was a part of ancient Middle Eastern life as well as of (say) modern Californian life. I conclude therefore that homosexuality may be properly used in connection with things to do with 'same sex' in ancient times as well as modern. Whether it ought not to be used about men acting out sexually with men for motivations other than attraction is an interesting question. I cannot see a difficulty in taking a word such as homosexuality to speak generally of same sex matters: attraction, as well as activity, whatever the motivation(s) of the latter. There would then need to be clarification through appropriate adjectives and phrasing.

In the case of Sodom it is possible that the rapacious men were motivated by a need to dominate and not by attraction. But I do not see enough detail in the story to rule out attraction playing a role. Not least, of course, because the offer of Lot's daughters was specifically turned down. Either way, what is narrated at Sodom is a vicious and violent expression of sexuality. It would be a long bow being drawn that used this story to condemn all expressions of homosexuality. And that bow is not being drawn here. Nevertheless I shall refrain from using 'homosexuality' here and use a more neutral-for-this-context 'sexuality'.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The texts for the next Hermeneutical Hui

The texts which will be reflected on at the next Hui, at the end of June, through individuals presenting, and in group work are as follows:

Genesis 19

Leviticus 18

Romans 1

1 Corinthians 5-7 (including 6:9-10)

As time permits I thought I might offer some of my own thinking about these texts over the remaining weeks. (NB I am not a presenter at the hui; I am on the organising group).

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Is one thing like another?

In a comment to my post below on Parameters, Tobias Haller, himself a published author on the subject of homosexuality, suggests:

"I would suggest a study of how the church managed to do this in the past on issues of a similar nature -- starting with the Apostolical coming to terms with Gentile inclusion in the people of God, without the Scripturally mandated circumcision -- which was achieved in part by coming to understand what had been a matter of the flesh in terms of the Spirit."

I think there are a series of interesting questions connected to this suggestion.

(1) Is there an analogy between "Gentiles" (outsiders to the Jewish nation) and people identifying themselves as gays and lesbians (often experiencing themselves in relation to the church as outsiders)?

(2) If there is an analogy, what consistent sexual ethic applies across the integrated people of God (i.e. heterosexual-and-now-integrated-homosexual people of God)? Or, do two different sexual ethics apply within the one people?

(3) What relevance, if any, does the original insistence have, in the apostolical inclusion of the Gentiles, that Gentile Christians share the same sexual ethic as the Jews?

(4) Is it fruitless to pursue an analogy with the Gentiles in this instance, because Scripture knows nothing of a people group determined by behavioural characteristics?

Monday, May 17, 2010


"And yet. It’s also impossible to avoid the reflection that the Episcopal church is unilaterally imposing its own vision of the church on a worldwide communion. Whatever one thinks of the matter on a personal basis, the New Testament as well as the Old specifically condemns homosexual behavior as contrary to the will of God. Myself, I think St. Paul’s condemnation of what was long known as ‘peccatum illud horribile non nominandum inter Christianos‘ (that horrid crime not even to be named among Christians) should be read as a condemnation of gratuitous sexual experimentation in a culture fundamentally deformed by widespread slavery and of Greco-Roman permissiveness towards what we would now call child sexual abuse and even rape rather than as an attack on the idea that some people are by the laws of their own nature drawn to members of their own sex. But that is one man’s opinion, and the institutional church with centuries of tradition and theological reflection cannot be expected to embrace radical new ideas overnight. This is not just a question about homosexuality; it is a question about how the church among other issues understands the nature of revelation and tradition. What does it mean, for example, to say that St. Paul didn’t know what was and wasn’t sinful, but that modern psychology can straighten him out? And to the degree that homosexual behavior and the meaning of that behavior changes from culture to culture, how should the different ideas and perceptions of people coming from different cultures be handled?

These are not easy questions and a person doesn’t need to be a homophobe or unthinking fundamentalist to continue to accept traditional Christian teaching on this subject. And when both the Greek Orthodox and the Roman Catholic churches continue to embrace traditional ideas, it is unreasonable to expect the Anglican Communion to move at warp speed to accommodate the ideas of American Episcopalians (less than 5 percent of the Anglicans worldwide) on a topic this controversial.

Even if the mind of the church ultimately comes round to the Episcopal view of homosexuality, the Episcopal church has made a profound and historic error in attempting to force this choice on the Anglican Communion as a whole. A great deal more reflection and discussion is needed before a step this significant can be taken by a worldwide body, and the Episcopal insistence that all the world should march to the beat of an American drum and an American timetable on this issue violates the plain duty of members in a common fellowship.

It seems to me that both the American Episcopalians and their bitterest critics in some of the African branches of the Anglican Communion are making similar theological errors: all sides are turning cultural preferences and habits into religious mandates without an adequately critical theological examination of their own biases. If American society is so permissive, sexually and in other ways that we should all think twice before we assume that our changing cultural norms reflect eternal law, sub-Saharan Africans are also not without their quirks and their blind spots. Neither conservative Nigerians nor liberal Americans come to this fight with clean hands; however the church at large ultimately resolves these issues both sides might do better to review and correct their own shortcomings rather than hurl anathemas at their enemies. Until time, reflection and the Holy Spirit show us the way forward I would like to see us all go on quarreling bitterly in the same house as high and low church Anglicans have been doing for centuries and I’m sorry that both sides have taken provocative steps that make this unlikely."

Walter Russell Mead's whole essay is here.

Sunday, May 16, 2010


I see it is nearly two weeks since my last post. Not good. Not with the next Hermeneutical Hui coming up very fast: last week in June 2010, at Dilworth School, Auckland. Not, by the way, the last hui ... this one will be 3.1 and the next, possibly in 2011, will be 3.2.

Here is some of my thinking re the hermeneutics of homosexuality in Scripture ... musings more than dogma, let the reader understand!

What will aid us not to be a church where the first thing a gay or lesbian person feels is that they are not welcome? (That question is intentionally worded in this way, but it does sit alongside the obvious complementary question, "What will aid us to be a church which welcomes gay and lesbian people?")

What understanding of Scripture can I (and you) reach which is not going to buckle or even reverse at the first sign of a reality check (like discovering a best friend is gay)?

What understanding of Scripture can we reach as a whole church, which is faithful to our long 2000 year tradition of being church? (And what would "whole" church mean? Just ACANZP? the Anglican Communion? the Anglican, Roman and Eastern Orthodox churches?)

What is God saying to the church? How do we know it is God doing the saying and not, say, our wishful thinking?

You can probably think of some other parameters. Let me know.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Is the lectionary nuts?

I confess to being something of a late appreciator of the lectionary. That is partly because I never understood the advantages of the three year cycle Revised Common Lectionary (following, for at least the months Advent to Pentecost, the two year cycle in our NZPB instead); partly too because I did not appreciate the significance of the words "the appointed readings" in our prayer book services: "appointed" meaning "as appointed by the lectionary".

But being a late appreciator does not mean I am a zealous convert, enamoured of all the virtues of the lectionary (RCL) and blind to all its faults.

Preparing for the next two Sundays' sermons (9th and 16th May) I discover that the readings as set down are:

9th May: Acts 16:9-15; Revelation 21:10, 22 - 22.5; John 14:23-29 or 5:1-9

16th May: Acts 16:16-34; Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21; John 17:20-26

The virtues are straightforward to see in this little sequence:

there is a nice sequential reading through Acts 16 across the two Sundays

there is a sequential reading through Revelation 21-22 across the Sundays

there is a sojourn in John's Gospel.

But the vices are not hard to detect either!

What is with the omitted verses in Revelation? (More below)

What explanation of the sequence of gospel readings is detectable (whether John 14 then 17 or 5 then 17)?

Why is a choice of gospel readings given for the 9th May?

Let's look a little closer at the Revelation readings:

Revelation 21:10, 22 - 22.5 and Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21

The first reading does not involve omission so much as addition. The passage Revelation 21:22-22:5, concerning the new Jerusalem being without temple, sun or moon for the Lord God is its temple and its light, could do with an introduction, so Revelation 21:10 is supplied to begin the reading.

I think this is nuts, myself! An introductory verse is "nice", but it raises the question why we would not wish - being Scripture-minded - to hear Revelation 22:11-21. What are we missing out on? As a matter of fact that question is also raised by looking back to Sunday 2nd May where we find that the sequential Revelation reading is 21:1-6. Knowing that, we may also want to ask what we are missing by omitting Revelation 21:7-9.

This is what we are missing in the latter case:

" 7 He who overcomes will inherit all this, and I will be his God and he will be my son. 8 But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.”

9 One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.” "

Looks like we do not get to hear the politically incorrect stuff!

In the former case we are missing in Revelation 21:11-21 a vast amount of symbolic detail about the new Jerusalem: its cuboid shape, its encrusted jewels, etc. All potentially rich spiritual mining in the hands of a competent preacher!

Then we have our 'selected verses' in the second Revelation reading, 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21. What are we missing?

First we are missing, between Sundays, Revelation 22:6-11:

"6 The angel said to me, “These words are trustworthy and true. The Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, sent his angel to show his servants the things that must soon take place.”

7 “Behold, I am coming soon! Blessed is he who keeps the words of the prophecy in this book.”

8 I, John, am the one who heard and saw these things. And when I had heard and seen them, I fell down to worship at the feet of the angel who had been showing them to me. 9 But he said to me, “Do not do it! I am a fellow servant with you and with your brothers the prophets and of all who keep the words of this book. Worship God!”

10 Then he told me, “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, because the time is near. 11 Let him who does wrong continue to do wrong; let him who is vile continue to be vile; let him who does right continue to do right; and let him who is holy continue to be holy.”

Then we are missing the italicised verses in this passage, 22:12-21:

"12 “Behold, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to everyone according to what he has done. 13 I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.

14 “Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city. 15 Outside are the dogs, those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.

16 “I, Jesus, have sent my angel to give you a this testimony for the churches. I am the Root and the Offspring of David, and the bright Morning Star.”

17 The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let him who hears say, “Come!” Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life.

18 I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book. 19 And if anyone takes words away from this book of prophecy, God will take away from him his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.

20 He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon.”

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

21 The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people. Amen."

Yep. That message is coming through loud and strong. Keep the verses speaking of reward and blessing. Jettison the verses which speak of punishment and bad consequences.

This is nuts! The lectionary "selectors" are excising from the reading of Scripture pieces of uncongenial Scripture. The uncongeniality may be for different reasons (difficult symbolism to understand, difficult "negativities" to explain) but it seems to be all uncongeniality to the selectors. Out it goes.

Do we believe Scripture comes from God or not? If we do not, let's just say so!

Perhaps we think that some passages are "not suitable for public reading". I can think of a few passages in Judges of that kind. You can think of others. Well, if something is not suitable for public reading, then omit the whole passage, please. Do not retain awkward passages and then (so to speak) cherry pick the nice cheeries and pass by the sour ones.

Who appointed the selectors of our appointed readings?